Our lesson today studies the Ark of the Covenant, so I would like to back up a long, long way in scripture. I’m never sure how far I should go back to provide the right historical context, and it seems like every time I study this I want to go all the way back to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning.” But I suppose I don’t have to rewind that far back every time. So where do I start in a study of the Ark of the Covenant?
Click here: Raider of the Lost Ark
II. History of the Ark
Ok, so let’s turn to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning…” I’m just kidding. We’ll start the famous crossing of the Red Sea, after Moses has led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, and heads for Mt. Sinai. Three months after crossing the sea, the people of Israel are camped at the bottom of Mt, Sanai, and Moses goes up into the mountains where God etches the Ten Commandments on stone tablets for Moses to bring to the Israel people.
Exodus 24 says that God Himself engraved the stone tablets with His own finger, verse 12,
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
The Lord God promises to dwell among the people, and the Ten Commandments are to be stored in the Ark.
So make yourself an Ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The Ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the Ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.
Sorry, that’s the wrong Ark. That was Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6, let me try again from Exodus 25, where we first read about the Ark, and God’s precise description of it to Moses:
“Have them make an Ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the Ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this Ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the Ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.
“Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark and put in the Ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the Ark of the Covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Here is what it looks like:
Click here: Raider of the Lost Ark
Actually, this is a pretty good representation of the Ark of the Covenant, and many parts of this movie got it right. Let’s take a look –
Some were exaggerations, like Brody saying it “leveled mountains.” That’s probably a reference to Joshua at the Battle of Jericho. Blowing horns and carrying the Ark, the Israelites circled the city, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. And remember the scene where Indiana tells Miriam, “Don’t Look!”? The Ark was considered holy and dangerous, and only those specified by the Lord could touch it or look in it, and then only after they had been purified. Coming into direct contact with the holiness of God was instant death. In Leviticus 10, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, brought a foreign flame to offer a sacrifice in the Tabernacle, they were devoured by flames from the Lord. In 2 Samuel 6 while moving the Ark, the oxen stumbled. A Levite named Uzzah steadied the Ark, and Uzzah was struck dead instantly.
The Ten Commandments were placed inside and sealed with the cover. The Ark was then placed inside the Holy of Holies inside the tabernacle and later the Temple of Jerusalem, and when the Levitical priest made his annual sacrifice for the people of Israel, he shed the blood of an innocent, unblemished lamb and sprinkled it on the top of the Ark, which call the Mercy Seat. The shekinah of God rested on this holy seat. This was the most important piece of furniture in the Tabernacle. It is where God sat when He dwelled among His people.
The location of the Ark today is unknown. Centuries later, when the Babylonians sacked Israel, led by Nebuchadnezzar, they hauled off a great deal of religious artifacts from the Temple and made detailed lists of what was taken, but the Ark was not listed among them items. One of the final kings, Josiah, may have buried it beneath the temple mount, beneath the Holy of Holies, and sealed it in stone. One Jewish archaeologist, Leen Ritmeyer, has identified a section of bedrock below the Temple Mount cut out in the dimensions of the Ark. It is unlikely any excavation will ever be allowed by either Muslims or Israelis.
III. The Ark is Taken
So it is within this history that we examine a time where the Israelites, in battle with the Philistines, gain a new understanding of the power and holiness of God. Approximately 300 years after the battle of Jericho, in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines. The Philistines are mentioned as far back as the days of Abraham in Genesis 21, and they’re mentioned in the books of Samuel over 150 times. These were originally a seafaring people from the Aegen Sea who sought to control the land we know as Palestine. The word Palestine is derived from Philistine, and this conflict over territory continues to this day.
Scripture says that at this battle, 4000 Israeli soldiers were killed.
The Israelis must have been perplexed. Wasn’t this land given to them by the Lord? Then why were the idol-worshipping Philistines defeating them? When the remaining Israeli soldiers returned to camp, the Israeli elders conclude that the reason Israel lost is because they didn’t carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle like they did at Jericho. If the elders had read their scripture, though, they would have read in Deuteronomy 28:25 and Leviticus 26:39 that their defeat was not caused by the Ark, or the lack of the Ark, but by their disobedience to the Lord.
So instead of searching their hearts and confessing their sins first, they decided to imitate Moses and Joshua and take the Ark into battle before them. Rather than seek the will of the Lord, the people of Israel attempted to use the Lord to fight their battle. In 1 Samuel 4 the people of Israel brought the Ark out of the Tabernacle and let out a mighty roar, so loud the ground shook. The Philistines were afraid, look at verses 6-8 –
Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”
When they learned that the Ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.
The battle began, but the battle did not end as expected. The Israelites were slaughtered, this time 30,000 Israeli soldiers died, and the Ark of God was captured by the Philistines. Israel was crushed, and the Philistines rejoiced. The spiritual leader of Israel, Eli, mentor of Samuel, was so distraught by the capture of the Ark that he falls out of his chair and breaks his neck and dies.
These are dark times indeed for Israel. It appears to the Israelites that God has been taken hostage by the Philistines. They’ve lost their battle, their soldiers, their land, their spiritual leader, and worst of all, they’ve lost the Ark of the Covenant. But we will see in today’s lesson that there is far more at play here. God is not an idol. God does not need for men to carry Him about. God is the One who carries Israel. They have forgotten who their God is. In fact, the terms of their covenant with God was that God would sit on the mercy seat when the people were obedient and submitted to God’s will.
The Philistines took the captured Ark with them to Ashdod, one of 5 major cities the Philistines controlled. In Ashdod, the Philistines worshipped their god Dagon, and they take the captured Ark of the Covenant and lay it prostrate into Dagon’s temple in a position of submission. Rejoicing, no doubt that the God of Israel has been captured and forced to bow before Dagon. But the next morning, they were astonished to see the roles reversed.
1 Samuel 5:1-3,
After the Philistines had captured the Ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the Ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the Ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place.
They put their god Dagon back in his place. Dagon is an idol that does have to be carried by man. The next morning is even worse – not only is Dagon back on the floor in submission, but his hands and head had been broken off, with only the body remaining.
Is Dagon in the hands of an angry God? Dagon is prostrated before the Ark of God, but Ark of the Covenant is not a god. It is not an idol like Dagon. The Ark is a symbol of God’s presence among His people. It has great symbolic value, but it is not an idol. Dagan, the man-made God, has to be picked up, glued back together, sent to the shop for repairs.
Verse 6 says the Lord’s hand was heavy against the Philistines and brought affliction and tumors. The people of Ashdod want nothing more to do with this captured Ark, so they send it to the next Philistine city, Gath. In Gath, immediately the same tumors and afflictions affected all the people. So the people of Gath decide to send it to a 3rd Philistine city, Ekron. And the people of Ekron see the Ark arriving and they cry out, “They brought the God of Israel to kill us! Send it away!”
I find it incredible how the Philistines don’t get it. Earlier before battle, they heard the Israeli roar so loud the earth shook, and the Philistines were afraid of the God who brought the plagues upon Egypt. Now, their idol God Dagon is hacked to pieces and lies prostrate before the Ark. And the Philistines are dying of some sort of plague with tumors as long as they keep the Ark. Their man-made god is powerless against the Almighty, but they still choose to worship their idol.
Send it back. Send it back, they say. With the presence of the one true living God in their midst, they want to send it away. It is too hot to handle. Send it away.
IV. The Ark is Returned
For seven months, the Philistines hold on to the Ark and are plagued with tumors. They know they have to get rid of it. At first, it was a political problem as they passed it from one city to another, but now it’s a religious problem. The want to return the Ark to Israel, but they don’t want offend Israel’s angry God.
1 Samuel 6:1-3,
When the Ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the Ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”
They answered, “If you return the Ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.”
The Philistine priests come up with a guilt offering, a really weird one. They make five gold tumors. Yes, tumors, modeled after the tumors that afflicted their bodies. They make 5 gold tumors, and also make 5 gold rats for carrying this plague. Look how well the Philistine priests understand the Jehovah God in verse 4-6 –
The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?”
They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?
Again, it’s interesting that they know the power of God but they refuse to worship Him. Instead, they continue to worship their idol Dagan who, as I understand it, doesn’t have any hands anymore. Or a head.
They Philistine priests devise a plan in verse 7 to see if the Ark is really the source of their problems, and if the Lord will be appeased if the Ark is returned.
“Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the Ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.”
So they take 2 cows that have never been yoked, pen up their calves, and load the Ark on the cart. Their thinking is that the natural inclination of the cows is to return to their young, but if the Lord is in control, He will guide the calves back to the Israelites.
Which is exactly what happened; the cows didn’t even look to the right or the left. The Philistines followed the cows and the Ark to the end of the town of Beth Shemesh where the Israelites were harvesting their wheat.
A big cry of joy from the Israelites when they see the Ark being returned on the cart of two cows. So excited they were, they took the Ark down, chopped up the cart for firewood, and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering. The Israelites of Beth Shemesh lined up to look inside the Ark – some manuscripts say 70, others say 50,070. Was the Lord pleased? God responded by striking the Israelites dead.
The Israelites were ecstatic to have the Ark returned; now they are shocked that the Lord God would strike down so many worshipping Israelites. The Israelites cry out, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God?”
Israel, in its exuberance, did not follow the law, and the punishment is death. The book of Numbers, chapter 4, specifically says that those that look inside at the holy things inside the arc will die. And the burnt offering of cows? Leviticus 1:10 says that all burnt offerings shall be male. In their exuberance, the Israelites disobeyed and were killed.
So what can we learn from today’s lesson? We begin with Israel’s first battle with the Philistines, which Israel loses 4000 men and is defeated. The priests of Israel are Eli’s sons at this time are corrupt and practicing evil. 1 Samuel 2:17 says the sin of the young priests was very great in the Lord’s sight. And the Israelites decide to take their lucky rabbit’s foot, the Ark, into battle, for the Lord is undefeated. Instead, their defeat is far, far greater, and 30,000 die and the Ark is taken.
When the Ark is returned, the Israelites celebrate the return of their lucky rabbit’s foot. They celebrate the return but disobey the Lord’s instructions, and even more Israelites die.
As for the Philistines, they know about the power of the Lord and the plagues against Egypt. After capturing it, they too mistake the Ark for the Lord God of Israel. They try to place the Ark in a position of submission to another pagan idol god, not understanding that it’s not the Ark that has the power, but the Lord God Himself.
Before coming to Christ, at some point in our lives, we are like the Philistines. We see the power of God all around us, we understand He is in control. But we hold on to our pride, our lives of greed and gluttony, because seeing the power of God is not the same as following and trusting the power of God. We think God, like the Ark, is too hot to handle, and we just want to move the Ark along to the next person or town. We want to keep worshipping at the feet of the world, our reality tv, our social media, our idol god Dagon. It’s comfortable, and our idol expects nothing from us except to occasionally glue him back together when he breaks.
In Mark chapter 5 we see the response of people who are uncomfortable with the power of God in their midst. Jesus arrives by boat in Garasenes and a deranged man comes running out of the tombs at him. The deranged man had been terrifying the local town, and chains and irons couldn’t hold him. Jesus commands the demons to leave the man and go into a herd of pigs, and the man is able to sit there in his right mind and have a conversation with Jesus. How do the people who witness this react? They ask Jesus to leave. The power of God is just too great to have in their midst. They’d rather live among the demons.
But sometime during our walk in the spirit, we become more like the Israelites. But maybe we don’t fully understand what living by faith is all about. We believe that we just have to give up smoking and drinking and start going to church more often, and our lives will be blessed. We hold up our church attendance like the Ark in front of us and go into battle, like somehow our church attendance is a lucky rabbits foot.
Our God is not a god to be carried in front of us to win our earthly battles. God is not a lucky rabbit’s foot. If we expect nothing will ever go wrong when we hold out our crosses or rosaries or holy water in front of us, then we do not understand the battle or what God is doing with us. God is less concerned about the challenge than He is with our response to that challenge. Our battle has already been won for us by our Savior, Jesus Christ.
God doesn’t live in an Ark to be used for our personal gain. God lives inside of us so that we may be used by Him. We are the Ark of the New Covenant. On our own, we have no power, but with the power of the Holy Spirit living inside us, the faith of a mustard seed will crumble mountains.
To God be the glory.